Lessons of Montaigne

Delightfully unpredictable, Michel de Montaigne seems to follow in his Essays a program of digressive spontaneity.[1] Engaging in a dialogue with writers of antiquity and readers in the present, these essays, carrying titles that correspond only vaguely, if at all, to their fluid substance, are above all a provoc­ative dialogue with himself. Or rather, they offer a conversation, in the original Latin sense of frequentation and keeping company. Montaigne the writer enjoys the close presence of Montaigne the person. In their exchanges, they do their best to avoid smugness and pedantry. The author of the Essays even takes pride in occasionally misquoting his sources. He often quotes from memory. Mental playfulness seems to be his intimate motto. He juggles ideas and writes with the delight of a genuine dilettante.

What kind of person was this most unconventional philos­opher who lived and wrote in the tormented times of religious wars during the second half of the sixteenth century? A wealthy landowner of possible Jewish Marrano origins, he was a respected magistrate, appointed counselor of the Parlement of Bordeaux and became mayor of that city—a function his father had occupied. While still in his late thirties, he decided to retire from public life, settle on his family estate near Bergerac in Périgord, and spend his days in the tower of his château, amid the books of his library, engaged in intellectual commerce with his beloved writers of antiquity. Latin was in fact a language he spoke before French—the result of a decision of his father who held very special views about his son’s education.

Married to the daughter of a rich merchant, Michel displayed little interest in the domestic duties of a husband. From his tower, he occasionally watched his wife busy at work in the courtyard or the garden. Surrounded by books, he far preferred observing himself read and think, often surprised by his own thoughts. Mental mobility became a central theme of his Essays. The first edition appeared in 1580. It was followed by other editions that included constantly added passages. In spite of his declared choice of a private existence in the company of great writers, he remained involved, at times secretly, in the agitated politics of his period. He had dealings with the ill-fated Henri III, who liked his Essays, and closer contact with Henri de Navarre, who became Henri IV, and who appreciated his advice.

What is this collection and blend of textual commentary, philosophical observation, autobiographical details, self-examination and self-contradiction that Montaigne chose to call “essays”? He himself refers to his work as a fricassée, a culinary term designating a stew and by extension a concoction of diverse ingredients. Every essay carries a specific title, but hardly any one of them has a precise subject. Not one of them stands out because of its rigor or consistency. The discursive voice speaking to us carries on a protean discourse. And that voice speaks abundantly about himself. He admits that this “self” in its endless diversity is his real subject. The religious thinker Blaise Pascal, reading him closely and at times admiringly a century later, found reprehensible this dedication to his “hateful self” (moi haïssable). A century later still, Voltaire, reacting sharply to Pascal’s austere Jansenist stricture, maintained that he was delighted by Montaigne’s charmant projet to write so fully about himself.

It is difficult not to agree with Voltaire about Montaigne’s captivating self-revelations. No detail about his own person seems insignificant to him or undeserving to be written about: his physical appearance, his speech defects and way of walking, his digestive problems, his sleeping habits, the kidney stones that caused him so much pain, his taste in food and wines. He knows himself, or believes he does. For he also discovers himself and to a certain extent invents himself as he writes. The self he tries to describe remains in motion and not always easy to capture. Toward the end of one of his richest essays, “Of the art of discussion,” he sums up his efforts at self-portraiture.

I present myself standing and lying down, front and rear, on the right and left and in all my natural postures.

In his program of sincerity, Montaigne also knows full well that his natural postures, his naturels plis are mobile, and surprise even himself.

And he surprises his reader by his provocative openness of mind and limitless curiosity. At the opening of one of his most celebrated essays, “Of experience,” he remarks that there is nothing more natural than the desire for knowledge. Montaigne’s desire is, however, not satisfied by mere facts and affirmed certitudes. He relishes playing with ideas and delights in unsettling his reader and himself by challenging commonly held moral and intellectual convictions. His tolerance for views opposed to his own helps him revise his opinions.

No propositions astonish me, no belief offends me, whatever contrast it offers with my own. There is no fancy so frivolous and so extrava­gant that it does not seem quite suitable to the production of the human spirit.

These remarkable lines all appear in the essay on the art of discussion (“De l’art de conferer”).

In his essay “Of experience,” Montaigne outlines what amounts to a program of relativism, referring at the start to Aristotle and Epicurus. “Never did two men judge alike about the same thing, and it is impossible to find two opinions exactly alike, not only in different men, but in the same man at different times.” Self-contradiction ultimately appears as a virtue. In the already mentioned essay on “discussion,” Montaigne insists that contradictions of opinion arouse and stimulate him: “. . . m’éveillent seulement et m’exercent.”

Charmed as he was by Montaigne’s determination to reveal so much about himself, Voltaire might have insisted on the irresis­tible appeal of his style. Vigorous, sinuous, concrete, his way of writing comes with an oral quality that almost conveys physical gestures. Montaigne himself describes the kind of language he favors, both in speaking and on paper.

The speech I love is a simple, natural speech, the same on paper as in the mouth, a speech succulent and sinewy, brief and compressed, not so much dainty and well-combed, as vehement and brusque.

To this telling passage appearing in his essay on the education of children, Montaigne might have added that he does not object to coarse expressions when appropriate.

His own way of expressing himself reflects his distaste for all conformities and rigid beliefs. Stubbornness, especially, offends him as a sure sign of unintelligence.

Obstinacy and heat of opinion are the surest proof of stupidity. Is there anything so certain, resolute, disdainful, contemplative, grave and serious as an ass?

Heat of opinion (ardeur d’opinion) is assuredly not one of Montaigne’s dispositions. He also shows little inclination to being grave et sérieux in the manner of the long-eared and coarse-maned quadruped he mentions. This kind of reprehensible gravity is totally unrelated to the lighthearted humanism displayed by Montaigne.
As a child, the future author of the Essays only heard his regional Périgord dialect spoken by the peasant family to which his father had entrusted him so he might learn how ordinary people live. A little later he heard and spoke Latin before he knew French. That, too, was his father’s idea. Pierre Eyquem de Montaigne, a cultivated landowner, had very unusual plans for his son, choosing a German tutor for him who did not speak French, but was an excellent Latinist, so that young Michel and this tutor would communicate exclusively in Latin, both orally and in writing. This prepared the boyy for close familiarity with writers of antiquity, proving directly relevant to the genesis of the Essays. Montaigne frequents the Stoics, the Epicureans, the Sceptics. He reads Seneca, Lucretius, Horace. From his early years on, he enjoys Ovid’s poetic accounts of miraculous meta­morphoses, the historical writings of Tacitus, Plutarch’s biographies. And he has a taste for the poetry of Virgil.

In his early writings, he develops the habit of gathering quotations from classical authors, providing some personal comments. Collecting citations, aphorisms, maxims, and examples from the Greco-Roman heritage had been a popular genre during the Renaissance. Montaigne’s originality from the start was to use the dialogue with the revered authors of the past largely as a pretext for entering into a dialogue with himself. In his essay “Of solitude,” he recommends that we reserve a private place all our own (une arrière boutique toute nostre) in order to keep up an ordinary conversation between us and ourselves. Such a conversation turns into an exercise in introspection.

The world always looks straight ahead; as for me, I turn my gaze inward, I fix it there and keep it busy. Everyone looks in front of him; as for me, I look inside of me; I have no business but with myself; I continually observe myself, I take stock of myself, I taste myself. (Essay “Of presumption”)

Montaigne knows fully well that this habit of introspection or self-auscultation in search of self-knowledge risks becoming his principal preoccupation. In his essay on the art of discussion, he admits that intimacy with his self seems to be his central subject. “I dare not only speak of myself, but to speak only of myself.” This dedication to a quasi-clinical self-observation is, however, not narcissistic. It functions in his case as a more general quest for insight into human thought and behavior. Referring to his own person, Montaigne tellingly resorts to philosophical and scien­tific language. The essay “Of experience” takes off with the general statement that there is no more natural desire than the desire for knowledge. A few pages later, Montaigne makes perfectly clear how he personally envisages this inquiry. “I study myself more than any other subject. That is my metaphysics, that is my physics.” And in pursuit of this self-observing, self-exam­ining curriculum, the author of the Essays watches himself closely in his daily behavior. He even attempts to retain consciousness watching himself in his sleep. Toward the conclusion of the essay on experience, Montaigne recalls how he had asked to be awakened while sleeping and dreaming. “To the end that sleep itself should not escape me thus stupidly, at one time I saw fit to have mine disturbed, so that I might gain a glimpse of it.”

The priority of self-awareness turns into an intellectual adventure. In the stimulating communication with himself, Montaigne relishes self-contradiction. He seems not to foresee his next move. This almost playful preoccupation with the “self” is, however, radically different from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s determination to talk about himself because, as he explains, there never was and never will be another Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In the second paragraph of his Confessions, Rousseau famously affirmed that he is made unlike anyone he ever met. His claim to uniqueness goes to an even greater extreme. “I will venture to say that I am like no one in the world.” The mold in which he was formed will be “broken.”

Montaigne would have been exceedingly surprised by such exceptionalist views of one’s own being—especially by Rousseau’s statement that he is altogether different from others (je suis autre). In stark contrast to the self-proclaimed unique Jean-Jacques, Montaigne views the self that so occupies him as representative. “Every human being bears the entire form of the human condition,” he writes in the essay “Of repentance.” Nothing could be more opposed to Rousseau’s brand of egocentrism. Attentive self-observation is for Montaigne the first step of a broader heuristic inquiry into ever mobile human thought and behavior. But the self is what he can know best—not as he is or was, but in the act of living and becoming, or even in the act of becoming Montaigne by writing the Essays.
Montaigne’s brand of humanism inevitably concerns itself with the education of the young. Books, yes—but please, no servitude to the authors’ opinions. One of his essays concerns itself in large part with the education of children. They should learn joyously, without being oppressed by pedants and pedantry or by the tyrannical constraints of the rulers of “rhetoric.” The question of education comes up in other essays, as does the disdain for prescriptive lessons of speech. “I would rather have my son learn to speak in the taverns than in the schools of fine speech” (escoles de la parlerie). The child’s mind must not be cluttered. Tutors should see to it that their pupils acquire a well-developed brain (une tête bien faite) rather than a stuffed one. All knowledge must be examined and then digested, not blindly taken in, to be later regurgitated. All opinions must be questioned, never dumbly accepted. What strikes a fresh, perhaps even a new note in this skeptical approach to learning, is the far-reaching resistance to all doctrinaire authority, the stress on individual mental agility, on weighing ideas and concepts, on valuing curiosity and open­ness of mind.

The art of thinking necessarily implies the art of living. Montaigne’s suspicious attitude toward doctors of medicine, his questioning their authoritative prescriptions, signal a quite special preoccupation with health. And for good reason. He suffered from painful kidney stones. Self-diagnosis and self-therapy also serve moral well-being. Montaigne travels all the way to Lucca in Tuscany for special baths to treat his chronic condition. This preoccupation with health, and distrust of doctors as well as remedies does not, however, indicate hypochondria. Rather, it speaks to his greater trust in nature (se commettre à nature is one of his favorite expressions), and to his belief that there is wisdom in learning to live with what the flesh is heir to. The awareness of mortality must not translate into fear of life. During a lengthy convalescence, after a fall from a horse that almost killed him, Montaigne understood that living, as he put it, was his real business.

He had learned in pain and distress that life was too precious to live in dread of losing it. Life had to be savored to the last drop. It was all we had (c’est notre tout). Acceptance of all that comes also means making the most of it. In his last essay, Montaigne sums it up. “Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately” (vivre à propos). This sense of acceptance and harmonic moderation comes close to the ancient Greek notion of metron ariston—the excellence of good measure. Montaigne’s view of life ultimately presents itself as a form of Epicureanism heightened by a sharp personal awareness of flux and impermanence.
Modern readers of Montaigne may feel that the Essays project, ahead of their time, the image of an author who sees himself and his fellow creatures as both mutable and self-shaping. For we are, each one of us, in motion and changing (ondoyant et divers). Humans cannot be defined, but discover and reveal themselves in the act of living, much as Montaigne discovers, or rather creates Montaigne in the act of writing the Essays. “I do not portray being. I portray passage” (Je ne peints pas l’estre. Je peints le passage), he declares in the first paragraph of the essay on repentance. This notion of flux and becoming may remind readers today of existentialist views of human freedom and unpredictability.

Not only do I find it hard to link our actions with one another, but each one separately I find hard to designate properly by some principal characteristic, so two-sided and motley do they seem in different lights.

But these multiple ambiguities and discontinuities of human behavior only incite Montaigne to pursue his ceaseless explo­ration of his own thoughts and actions. “There is no end to our researches . . . ,” he remarks in the same essay. Judging our most ordinary moves as loaded with often conflicting meanings is perhaps the most modern aspect of Montaigne, who appears little drawn to unambiguous heroic deeds and extreme situations. Transcendental humors and vertiginous heights, he himself admits, are not to his taste. They frighten him. Conversely, holding ourselves in contempt he considers a terrible affliction. The pride of being fully human implies learning a lesson in modera­tion and modesty. One of Montaigne’s most endearing observations appears at the conclusion of his final essay and ends with a crude French word. Just after reminding the reader that when walking on stilts we must still walk on our legs, Montaigne adds: “And on the loftiest throne in the world, we are still sitting only on our ass” (sus nostre cul).
[1] The Complete Essays of Montaigne, trans. by Donald M. Frame (Redwood City, California, 1958).